Weighing transparency against free, frank talks

Public workshops involving councillors and ratepayers may offer more transparency, but are unlikely to happen, Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull says.

''In the discussion around wanting to be more transparent, naturally the subject comes up that while almost all of our formal meetings are in held in public, what about workshops?'' Mr Cull said.

However, he said joint workshops could stymie free and frank discussions.

The issue has come to the fore in recent weeks after the Mosgiel-Taieri Community Board was advised by council staff it was better not to hold meeting other than formal ones, unless they were workshops or briefings with staff.

Such informal meetings were not covered by the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act and lacked transparency, staff said.

The board has met, for at least the past several terms, to discuss agenda items between its six-weekly formal meetings without staff or other people present, although current and former members say no resolutions were passed at the meetings.

Former member Brian Miller said he was not invited to the informal meetings and complained about them, prompting the board to seek the staff advice.

Mr Cull said at the city council, councillors held regular workshops to ask questions and be informed on research, background, implications and pros and cons of various matters they were later to consider as a council at a council meeting.

Councillors could ask questions and have free and frank discussions with staff or others at workshops, but no decisions could be made.

Opening councillor workshops up to the public had implications either way, Mr Cull said.

On the positive side, council workings would be even more transparent.

On the negative side, public workshops could constrain free and frank questioning of ideas.

''There's a danger of someone standing up and saying 'what about if we did such and such', just flying a kite and testing something in a free and frank exchange of ideas, and if that one thing were quoted as if that person were promoting it, it could have quite a different look to it.''

He said the matter was not on the council's agenda and it would continue with the status quo.

''It may come up that someone will say what are we trying to hide, why are we doing this, why can't we have this in public, and then the discussion will be had.''

The council has the right under the Act to exclude the public from discussions at meetings for various reasons.

Two of the most common reasons for doing so are to protect the privacy of people up for appointments and so as not to prejudice or disadvantage negotiations.

Mosgiel-Taieri Community Board member Martin Dillon and chairman Bill Feather both said the general feeling among board members was that their informal gatherings were allowed under the Act, and the board would probably continue to hold the meetings.

Mr Dillon said he expected the matter to be discussed at the board's next meeting.

- debbie.porteous@odt.co.nz


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